My 2¢

One Buff Chick

Monday, April 16th, 2012

That is one buff chick.

Can anyone guess the secret?

Mad(iso)ness

Friday, April 13th, 2012

So here I am in Madison, having a peak experience at the Writers Institute and bringing my usual mix of information, inspiration and bafflegab. Mostly, though, I’ve been keen to walk the streets of Madison, since the city plays a not-insignificant role in my new novel, LUCY IN THE SKY. There’s a point in that book when our hero, teen hippie-wannabe Gene Steen, makes his way to Madison at its counterculture height in 1969. Never having been here before, having only imagined the place and researched it via Wikipedia, Google Earth, and my own febrile imagination, I was curious about how the reality would match, or fail to match, my vision.

So I took myself out onto State Street, then as now the main shopping street and chief hangout for denizens of the nearby University of Wisconsin at Madison. The result was weirder than I expected. Even through the veil of 40+ years, it was clear that State Street had not lost its hippie roots. Evidence? These shots from the head shop Sunshine Daydream, which could easily have opened its doors in the sixties.

Of course there have been a few changes — witness this sign in the window of Sunshine Daydream:

Not sure there would have been quite the need for this “no guns” admonition back in ’69. Yet the spirit lives on.

As I strolled the streets I experienced an odd schizophrenia. I have never been here before, yet I knew for sure that I had been here, both in the 1969 of my imagining and in the real world of my writing desk, just about a year ago. I felt at once alien and quite at home. This feeling serves as a certain synecdoche (look it up) for my whole experience of writing the novel. I have described it as an emotional memoir — the story of the hippie wannabe I always wanted to be but never quite was. Until I walked State Street last night, I didn’t realize how fully I had achieved my goal of reliving a past I never had. This is the power that a writer enjoys, at least within the realm of his own head and heart. I was never here in 1969, yet thanks to the power of imagination, I got a chance to relive the experience for the first time, if that makes any kind of sense at all. Out on the street last night I experienced real nostalgia and real joy, and realized that, by a certain backdoor means, I had achieved an important goal for myself. I brought a time and place alive in my mind, in a way that I now know to but full, complete, and deeply satisfying. I’m going to school on this. The writer I will be from now on will strive to recreate this sense of abstract creation. I will make worlds, if for no other reason than that I may visit them.  And I don’t know, but do suspect, that this will make my future works more powerful, visceral and satisfying for my readers as well.

In past I have spent time in college towns and felt the familiar “bottom ache” (see LUCY for more on this concept) of lost youth and time gone by. Here and now I don’t feel those things. I need not long for something I wanted and never had, for, thanks to the experience of writing LUCY IN THE SKY, I feel like I had that something; I need not regret a road not taken, for now I’ve gone back and taken it, at least by roundabout and fictional means. To me that’s a win.

Yet as whimsy is still my stock in trade, I can’t close this post on that. Instead, I offer this cut-out from a warning sign at the UWM boathouse on Lake Mendota. It offers this sagacious advice:

Remember… hug the shoreline. There’s only hard paddling and dangerous water elsewhere. I do not consider these “words to live by.” I consider them words to reject utterly. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun, oh but Mama, that’s where the fun is.” Hug the shore? Screw that. I’m going where the hard paddling is.

More later, -jv

Oh, PS and inevitably,

www.tinyurl.com/Lucy1969. Check it out. You, too, can live in the past.

Author-Narrated Audio

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Hey, campers, I just got my shipment of LUCY IN THE SKY .mp3 audio discs, and they look like this.

Well, this one of them looks like this. Excellent presentation and packaging by Spoken Word, Inc. As both author and narrator, I’m a proud papa.

And how do I sound? Well, if all goes according to plan, you can find out by clicking here on this randomly chosen sample.

Or head on over to Spoken Word for a different clip, not chosen at random, but chosen as the first chapter.

Here’s the true truth about author-narrated audio.  I don’t have the most demonstrative voice or polished approach — I’m no Leonard Nimoy narrating Cosmos (nor even William Shatner doing Common People) — but I do bring something to the party that the pros don’t, and that’s an intimate connection to the work, which I think comes through in the read, and also think there’s an audience for. But sample the samples and see for yourself, yeah?

For those who are readers not hearers, the ebook and paperback editions are available now at www.tinyurl.com/Lucy1969.

So rock, then roll. More later and peace out, -jv

Bafflegab Books is Proud to Present…

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Here’s the logo for my new publishing company, BAFFLEGAB BOOKS.

Its first release, LUCY IN THE SKY, is available now at www.tinyurl.com/Lucy1969.

For those of you who have followed my work from THE COMIC TOOLBOX through all those poker books to the “sunshine noir” mystery novels THE CALIFORNIA ROLL and THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY, you’re going to find LUCY a bit of a departure. It’s a coming-of-age tale set in Milwaukee in 1969, and it’s more of an authentic emotional journey than, you know, bafflegab. That said, if you like the way I put words on the page, you’re really gonna love LUCY. Here’s what she looks like.

And here’s where to go for an excerpt: http://radarenterprizes.com/?p=1808.

The novel is available in print, ebook and author-narrated audio. I’m especially pleased with the audio version of the work, because I think I brought a level of emotional texture to the read that a third-party reader would not. If you like taking your stories in through your ears, I definitely recommend grabbing LUCY in that form.

In whatever form you encounter her, I hope you enjoy her, and if you do, I hope you’ll post a short review at Amazon, so that others can find their way to the work, too. It’s “a trip and a half for young seekers and old geezers alike,” and with all due false modesty, I really think it rocks.

More later, -jv

RIP Peter Bergman

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

I note the passing of Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theatre. His comedy was instrumental in defining mine, and if you’ve never sampled the Firesign’s wares, I suggest you do so now. These are the classics:

I met Peter once or twice, and prevailed upon him to write the foreword to THE COMIC TOOLBOX, which is still in print, both the book and the original foreword, so Peter Bergman lives on between my covers, which pleases me.

Back in the day (high school and college) knowledge of the Firesign Theatre was a reliable litmus test of cool. If you said, “He walks into a great sandstone building,” and someone replied, “Ouch, my nose,” you knew you’d just met another Firehead, someone who thought like you thought, and found the same things funny. Some of my most cherished friendships began with the chance cross-quoting of some words of wisdom from Nick Danger or Porgy Tirebiter.

Here’s the foreword Peter wrote for The Toolbox:

“FOREWARD!”
to The Comic Toolbox

Are you one of those sorry folk
Who cannot write a decent joke,
Who cannot pen a funny scene
Because you lack the comic gene?
Are you convinced that you alone
Are cursed to walk this earth without a funny bone?
Take heart, dear friend, for now a book is writ
To guide you on your quest
To wrest from deep within, your native wit.
Voilà! The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus
To save you from the jester’s poorhouse.
It lays you certain basic rules
That aid the craft of serious fools.
You’ll learn to slay that dreaded djin
The Editor who lives within.
And once sprung from that self-constructed jail,
You’ll then be free to risk, and free to fail.
Free to find the premise, choose the word
That separates the master from the nerd.
So if you wish to tune your comic craft
And join the ranks of the professionally daft,
Then take this book of humor-honing tools
And join the ranks of jesters, clowns and fools
Who rise each day and, taking out their pen,
Bring joy and laughter to their fellow me.

RIP Peter Bergman. “I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”

More later, -jv

So Long, Sofia

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Okay, it’s not a perfect world. I know it’s not a perfect world because I want to post a farewell blog to Bulgaria and I can’t because my internet connection is sketchy-to-nonexistent. So I’ll write this now and post it later. Maybe at the airport in Sofia. Maybe during tomorrow’s four-hour layover in Paris. Maybe all the way back in LA. Or maybe the hotel internet will miraculously cure itself while I’m out this evening and I can send this missive before I go to bed for the last time here in Bulgaria.

My controlling emotion right now is the same one it always is at the end of a trip: melancholy. I can’t help it. I always know it’s coming and I’m always powerless to stop it. And the better I do my job, the worse the melancholy hits when it hits, because that just means I’ve forged a bond, and bonds are hard to break. If I didn’t get all sloppy emotional, I wouldn’t have such trouble letting go, but if I didn’t get all sloppy emotional, I wouldn’t be as effective. I’m trying to model egolessness and service to the work. I want ‘em to drink the Kool-Aid (even in places in the world where that phrase has no meaning). So I wear my heart on my sleeve, right out there where everyone can see it ticking. That’s part of the melancholy. Part of it, but not all. Another part is the fact of coming down from a high. For the past month I’ve been living in such a state of high intensity, with so much challenging work to do, so many interesting problems to solve. And, of course, I’m the star of the show, the answer man, the focus of everyone’s attention. For an attention junkie like me, that’s hard to let go of.

Is it weird to claim to model egolessness and claim to be an attention junkie in the space of the same paragraph?  I don’t think so. I think true egolessness is acknowledging that you have an ego. If that’s too Zen for your taste, I’m sorry , but that’s the way I feel.

Hey, what goes up must come down, right? I’ve long longed to be the guy who parachutes into new territories and makes them safe for situation comedy. Certainly that’s what I’ve done here, and I think – with all due false modesty – that I’ve done a terrific job. I did what I set out to do. I recruited and trained a team of writers who can execute the full and complete adaptation of Married…with Children, all umpteen-zillion episodes. It’s not Nobel Prize stuff, but it’s not nothing, either. So I take pride. I trained myself out of a job as quickly as possible, always my goal. With all due false modesty, I take pride.

And I pay the price. The price of my melancholy as I stick my dirty clothes in my suitcase and prepare, once again, to turtle aboard the plane for the long ride home. I’ll be glad to be home. Back to my loved one and my loved ones, my ultimate Frisbee, my friends, my California sunshine, my precious and sacred writing days. But that’s for tomorrow or the day after. For now it’s the night the show closes, and, honestly, I don’t know how to have closure.

More later, from somewhere. -jv

From Cold to Stupid Cold

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Well, after last week’s snowluge (that’s a snow-deluge, where the snow gets too deep even for a luge), the inevitable Siberian cold front has moved in and the temperature has plummeted from reasonable single digits (on the centigrade scale) to ridiculous numbers like -10 and -27. See, this is my big problem with the centigrade scale; it makes everything MUCH colder than it has to be. Okay, in fairness, blaming centigrade is truly just killing the messenger, so I’ll let that go. But I’m here to tell you that I have neither the clothing nor the temperament for snot-freezes-in-your-nostrils cold, which is where we’ve arrived at today.

I felt it in the air yesterday when I took my latest sightseeing stroll around Sofia. Highlights included the Natural History Museum, where I encountered this intriguing theory about the origin of the Cyclops myth: It turns out that the bones of extinct elephants littered the ancient Mediterranean world, which, if you didn’t know better (and how could you, since you’ve never seen a live elephant?) you would think the skeletons resembled a hugely over-sized man — a giant. It turns out that elephant skulls don’t have much in the way of eye-sockets, but do have a big, gaping trunk-socket — which, again, could look very much like a single eye hole to a primitive person trying to glean meaning from old bones. One thing leads to an other and voila, you’ve got yourself a cyclops myth. Why those bones should add up to a cranky blacksmith, I don’t know, but then again I’ve never gotten how those random stars of Ursa Major add up to the shape of a bear. Maybe it has something to do with ancient alkaloids.

I did some brief, frigid shopping at the flea market of Soviet-era flotsam, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to load up on looted Nazi swords or medals, be they real or reproduction. Magnifying glasses. I bought some nifty magnifying glasses. I’m exactly that kind of nerd.

High point of the stroll was the exhibit of relic religious art in the crypt of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Here are some shots from there.

As you can see, even after hundreds of years, the colors are still quite vivid. So is, er, the imagery.

That shot was taken from “the Life of St. George,” who, as you can readily judge, had a hard one. I guess once you’ve slain the dragon, it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

Finally I leave you with this proof that time travel exists; how else does one explain the presence of the Bee Gees in 18th century religious iconography?

Rock on, Christ Pantocrator, rock on.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go outside and freeze some bodily fluids. Good times!

More later, -jv

Snow Far, Snow Good

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

I know, I know, more noise about snow. But seriously. I mean… seriously. It just snowed for 36 hours, and you can see the story in this photo essay of the tree outside my window at work.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t seem like such a much to you, but believe me, it’s impressive when you’re out in it. And to think people have historically fought wars in this weather. I don’t even want to walk to the car.

It’s a big deal, this snow. Apparently right now Bulgaria is on Orange Alert, which, I don’t know, maybe means that the snow is about to turn orange. The border with Romania is closed, though I don’t hear anyone complaining about that. You know, I mean, this country is also right next door to Greece, and when I think of Greece, I think of beaches and topless Swedish girls (funny, when I think of many things I think of… never mind). I do not think of snow. No. Not at all. But here it is, in all its gory glory.

I mean, it’s really pretty pretty, so long as you can view it in a dispassionate, super-graphic sort of way (which is much easier to do from behind plate glass or from another continent altogether). But I’m digging it, I am. Mostly because I know I get to leave it in a week or so, so yay. Back to Southern California, where our idea of a brutal winter is a rainstorm big enough to float a trash can or two. My only concern is that the weather may impact my weekend travel plans. I had hoped to check out the Kukeri, Bulgarian carnival celebrations that go back to pagan times. I don’t imagine it’ll be like Mardi Gras (too damn cold to show one’s naughty bits for beads) but it certainly seems worth checking out. On the other hand, I have heard horror stories of being stuck for 12 hours in stopped traffic behind accidents on snowy mountain roads, and I am certainly not up for that.

What I am up for is… chalga! This is Bulgaria’s pop-folk music, mostly limned by women in skimpy outfits and blasted out at 250 beats per minute or some such. Tonight, in the company of local hosts who will (presumably) keep me out of trouble, I shall be venturing into my first so-called “folk club.” I’ve been thinking Bob Dylan. I’ve been told that my thinking is way, way wrong.

Need some chalga? Check it out.

Okay, I’ll close the post with this lovely piece of found art, entitled, “One of these things is not like the other.”

Awesome, innit?

More later,  -jv

Well Now There’s This

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

I think that pictures of snow must be the most boring thing in the world to people who regularly see snow. (I also think that light switches on the outsides of bathrooms are about the worst idea ever). For the rest of us, such snaps have a certain “watching a train wreck” quality. It’s not the beauty we’re drawn to, but the appalling implied chaos. First we have an immediate stretch of  treacherous walking and driving. This is followed by a period of extended slush/muck, during which mud and guck of every unspeakable description seems to leap from the ground onto your shoes and boots, pants, jacket, everywhere; and getting from point A to point B becomes such a boggy slog that you think, “Hell, maybe I’ll just stay indoors today. I mean, really, who needs food?” As snow turns to ice, it’s piled into huge dark mounds by city workers who contribute their own cigarette butts and Dunkin’ Donuts cups to the aggregate, as if out to create a post-modern sculpture upon the guiding artistic principles of chaos and inconvenience. These mounds will linger for weeks and months, until gradually melting away in the spring to reveal lost shoes, mittens, hats and the odd iced animal. Good times.

Yet when it’s fresh, it sure do look purty. So now there’s this.

And if you’re not from snow country, let me just say that the novelty wears off almost the instant it sets in.

I did get in a nice walkabout last night before the weather set in, and captured this picture of The Church of the Holy Blah Blah Blah (sorry, I never was good at tracking facts).

Plus a damned intriguing ghost rider in the sky.

Somewhere in the past week I also stumbled upon Jedi Salad

Made with real Jedis, I suppose.

We close this post with the estimable Plateau of Cheese. You will find it on the map not far from the Jagged Peaks of Tortellini and the Lake of Spilt Milk (over which there is no use crying).

Okay, that’s enough of this nonsense. There’s a world of snow out there just waiting to envelop me in its chilly moist embrace, so I’d better get cracking. You know the expression “Winter Wonderland?” It’s just like that.

Without the wonderland part.

More later, -jv

“Now Saving Bulgaria”

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

For fairly obvious reasons, these weeks when I download my pictures I download them to a file labeled “Bulgaria.” Just now I went to save all my changes and I was informed that I was “now saving Bulgaria.” That made me feel rather good.

But seriously, it’s only a television show.

I had a chance to take a long walk around today, camera in hand. As always, I set out to take pictures of important cultural artifacts.

This has to be important. It is on a very high pillar.

I like to show folks the typical sights of the city, including its streets and sculptures.

Streets.

Sculptures.

But my plan always goes to hell and I end up taking pictures of dogs instead.

(True fact or bar fact: there are more stray dogs in Sofia than people.)

And then things just degenerate into silly sign captures, like this one that, at least, tells it like it is.

And this one that, based on investigation, tells it like it isn’t.

Because that was not one New York tasting hot dog.

And then this one…

…which, to my non-Cyrillic-reading eye, initially struck me as “bimbo outlet,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Anyway, all in all a pretty picturesque and picture-driven stroll around town. My mental map is now good and dialed in. I know where two Subways are (and two metro stations), plus two Irish bars, many Non-Stop stores in case I need a can of peaches at 3 a.m., what looks like the world’s sketchiest Chinese restaurant, plus the National Theater and the National Gallery and this palace and that church and blah, blah, blah.

Sorry, folks. I’d rather take pictures of signs.

More later, -jv

PS: Bar fact, which you knew.